Pittsburgh Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster caught the pass over the middle near the Steelers’ 45-yard line in overtime, but before he could turn upfield, Marlon Humphrey sized him up, and with a move that has become his trademark, Humphrey punched the ball out of Smith-Schuster’s hands.

Humphrey took Smith-Schuster to the ground, and as the fumble bounced along the Heinz Field grass, Humphrey popped back up and grabbed the loose ball inside the Steelers’ 40-yard line. Four plays later, Justin Tucker’s 46-yard field goal gave the Ravens a 26-23 win, one of 14 en route to their runaway 2019 AFC North title.

Humphrey has been a fundamentally sound cornerback from the minute he stepped onto the field as the Ravens’ first-round draft pick (No. 16 overall) in 2017. But so-called “splash plays” like the one at Pittsburgh have elevated Humphrey to Pro Bowl status in each of the past two years.

And although the Ravens have a transcendent quarterback in Lamar Jackson, the organization’s bedrock has long been its defense. Now after signing a top-of-the market, five-year contract last fall, Humphrey figures to be the face of that defense for the foreseeable future, the latest homegrown defensive megastar for a franchise that has produced Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, along with potential Hall of Famers Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, among others.

Could Humphrey ascend to that level?

“Any time you’re compared to the Ray Lewises and the Ed Reeds, it’s definitely always an honor,” Humphrey said after a minicamp workout in June. “I know those guys got some Defensive Player of the Year [awards], so I probably need to get one of those in order to really try to be one of those cornerstone pieces. But definitely, it’s always an honor to be compared to those guys.”

Family Ties

For Humphrey, elite athleticism began in the womb.

His father, Bobby, was a two-time All-American running back at Alabama who went on to play four years in the NFL, earning Pro Bowl honors in 1990 with the Denver Broncos. His mother, Barbara, set the outdoor 400-meter dash record at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, a mark that stands more than 30 years later as one of the oldest on the UAB books. (Barbara Humphrey still finds purpose on the track, serving as head coach of the Speed City Summer Track Club in Birmingham.)

Marlon is the middle of five Humphrey children, all exceptional athletes. Older brother Maudrecus played football at Arkansas and UAB. Older sister Breona ran track at UAB. Younger sister Brittley was an All-American hurdler at LSU who competed in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials this summer. And youngest brother Marion Humphrey played basketball at the University of San Diego before transferring to Salt Lake Community College this spring.

Marlon Humphrey at Alabama
Marlon Humphrey at Alabama (Photo Credit: UA Athletics)

That innate talent and competitive drive, along with a healthy dose of sibling rivalry, fueled the Humphreys. As Ravens head coach John Harbaugh likes to say, iron sharpens iron.

“If you played bad,” Marlon Humphrey said, “it wasn’t the most fun dinner at the house. You were definitely going to be told about it.”

Humphrey also credits his mother for mining his natural competitiveness.

“I think about track at almost every phase,” Humphrey said. “When I was [in elementary school], when I was middle school, when I was high school, there was always a kid I couldn’t beat, and my mom told me, ‘Just stick with it. Stick with it.’ She thought I could outwork those people that were beating me, and it always seemed to come true in track.”

In fact, had Humphrey decided to focus on track, he might have been in the Olympics. In 2013, Humphrey won a silver medal in the 110-meter high hurdles at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Donetsk, Ukraine, losing only to future Olympian Jaheel Hyde of Jamaica. Humphrey was also a seven-time Alabama high school state track champion.

But with that success came unintended consequences. Humphrey recalled that one of his high school football coaches referred to him as “a track guy,” which Humphrey translated to mean, “You weren’t trying to hit anybody.”

“It was a joke,” Humphrey said, “but I didn’t like that, and I would be lying if I didn’t say it affected me.”

Indeed, Humphrey molded his game after physical cornerbacks like Richard Sherman, who could create turnovers but also pay attention to the fundamentals of the position, such as anticipating a throw or hammering a receiver, the price to pay for making a catch against him.

“You’re not going to last long if you’re not a physical football player,” said Josh Niblett, Humphrey’s coach at Hoover High School in Alabama. “He’s a big, physical football player, and he’s always been a great tackler.”

Though he thrived on the track, Humphrey always had his eyes on college football, and the offers poured in for the five-star recruit who went 30-0 in his final two seasons at Hoover. After flirting with offers from Florida State and Mississippi State, Humphrey followed his father to Alabama. In addition to playing football, Humphrey also competed on the track in relays and hurdles.

After a redshirt season in 2014, Humphrey reached the national championship game in both of his on-field seasons at Alabama, winning the title after the 2015 season. He was named a first-team All-American in 2016.

Marlon Humphrey at Alabama
Marlon Humphrey at Alabama (Photo Credit: UA Athletics)

But raw athletic ability can only take you so far. The careers of countless elite athletes have flamed out because of bad decisions, bad motivation or both.

That never happened with Humphrey because his family kept him, in his words, “aligned,” and because he demonstrated an almost obsessive work ethic.

“Sometimes kids can have success, and then maybe they don’t work as hard, or they don’t stay locked in on the things that helped them get to that point,” Niblett said. “Then they forget, because they get comfortable. Marlon never got comfortable. He was always working on his craft. He was always working on ways to get better.”

In offseasons, Niblett saw that firsthand with the grueling workouts Humphrey would put himself through back at Hoover — before he went off to help the track team as a volunteer coach.

During training camp practices a couple of years ago, when reserves took the field for an 11-on-11 period and many veterans would head to the water station, a sweating Humphrey would walk toward the sideline, take a knee and consult a video tablet to review plays. During the season, he has been known to take reps with the scout kickoff unit, racing down the field as hard as an undrafted rookie trying to make the team.

“The thing about Marlon, and what the other guys watch about Marlon, is when he runs a drill, he doesn’t just run a drill,” Harbaugh said. “He runs a drill as if it’s the last play in the Super Bowl. … Every single rep. When you do it like that, you can’t help but get better.”

This past spring, Humphrey could have easily opted to stay away from voluntary OTA workouts, with his $97.5 million contract signed and sealed. Instead, he was on the Owings Mills practice fields for nearly every rep, every day.

“I just wanted to get back, get some sessions in, get with my coach, work on a couple things,” Humphrey said. “It’s a long offseason, and I was ready to get to work.”

Marlon Humphrey, Sammy Watkins
Marlon Humphrey covering Sammy Watkins during training camp (Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox)

Hitting “The Lottery”

The big contract didn’t change Humphrey’s work habits, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t move him.

As Humphrey met with the media shortly after signing the deal, he choked up as he recalled how his parents and others had steered him to that moment.

“Since I was young, I told my dad I wanted play in the NFL, and he never really let me slip,” Humphrey said that day. “Getting in trouble here and there as a youngun’, my dad just never kept his foot off me. Decisions, things I wanted to do, he was able to tell me, ‘No,’ and didn’t really share explanations. But as I grew older, I was able to understand.”

Humphrey’s father had a few brushes with the law in his 20s and he was determined not to let Marlon repeat that behavior.

“I remember hearing the same stories when I was 6 all the way [to] when I was 22,” Marlon Humphrey said, “and then I’d get in those same situations and I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t think I should do this, because I feel like I’ve already lived it.'”

Humphrey recalled that one high school coach told him that if he stayed true to his craft and kept out of trouble, he would “hit the lottery,” and now Humphrey’s Twitter feed includes the descriptor “The Lottery 3x.”

“It was crazy that at that young age, he had that confidence in me,” Humphrey said.

Humphrey said his father warned him early in his career about “blowing money, people taking money from you,” and his father checks his son’s credit card statements closely enough that last year, he questioned a pizza order placed in Houston; turns out it had been placed by former Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon.

Humphrey and Judon have done plenty of bantering over social media, where Humphrey, off the field, is at his most visible. He doesn’t relish traditional interviews, but Humphrey eagerly engages his 267,000 Instagram and 128,000 Twitter followers.

“This might offend my Maryland people,” he tweeted recently, “but let me just say … you don’t need to put Old Bay on everything. Let’s stop with the experiments.”

He also had a good-natured social-media debate with golfer Phil Mickelson about coffee, but struck a more serious tone when he pleaded to NFL players over Twitter: “Get the vaccine, fellas.”

The Next Level

Humphrey’s story in Baltimore is still largely unwritten, but since he declared for the draft after his sophomore season, the four-year veteran is just 25 years old.

“I’ve felt like the last year and a half or so, he’s one of the top corners in the league,” Harbaugh said. “I’m talking top two, three, four in the league. Now everybody else is maybe starting to see what we’ve seen, because we watch him every single week.”

Marlon Humphrey, Chuck Clark
Marlon Humphrey and Chuck Clark (Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox)

Two years ago, Humphrey made the move from outside cornerback to the slot to compensate for Tavon Young’s season-ending injury, adding to his versatility. And even though Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale generally doesn’t have cornerbacks “shadow” certain receivers, and while the Ravens have the benefit of another Pro Bowl cornerback in Marcus Peters on the other side, Humphrey is frequently tasked with locking down elite receivers.

Humphrey earned his first Pro Bowl bid after the 2019 season, when he had three interceptions, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries — two of which he returned for touchdowns.

That was also the year when Humphrey and Cleveland Browns receiver Odell Beckham Jr. got into a spirited scuffle at M&T Bank Stadium. Beckham had clearly grown frustrated with Humphrey after being held without a catch for the first three quarters of a game for the first time in his career, with Humphrey hounding and harassing Beckham all over the field.

In 2020, Humphrey set a career-high with 82 tackles and a team single-season record with eight forced fumbles, the most in the league. Two of those fumbles — punched out by Humphrey — were returned for touchdowns by teammates.

Assuming he can stay healthy, Humphrey would be in position for another new contract by age 30 — The Lottery 4x? — and has already spoken about his desire to be a “Raven for life.” Then, perhaps, the comparisons to Ray Lewis and Ed Reed would be more appropriate.

Lewis played 17 years with the Ravens, franchise sack leader Terrell Suggs played 16 and Reed 11. Humphrey still has work to do to match their longevity, and all those franchise cornerstones own something that Humphrey does not: a Super Bowl ring.

Humphrey has played in the postseason in each of the past three seasons, only to suffer gut-wrenching early exits. After an upset loss to the Tennessee Titans in the 2019 playoffs — his second straight one-and-done playoff appearance — a frustrated Humphrey stood at his locker and said, “This team’s identity right now is get in the playoffs and choke. … That’s just the hard truth.”

The Ravens advanced one round further with a playoff win against Tennessee last year, only to be shut down by the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round.

Moving beyond that, with Humphrey leading the way, would go a long way toward burnishing his legacy, said national NFL analyst Brian Baldinger.

“It helps to do it on a big stage, in a big playoff game,” Baldinger said.

“It would be good if they’re in a divisional playoff game with Buffalo, and he can take one to the house against Josh Allen to win a game. You need those kind of plays in the postseason.”

As for putting him in the class of Lewis or Reed? Baldinger said pump the brakes on the comparisons, for now.

“You can’t put him in Ray’s and Ed’s [class] or anything like that until he does it for the next five years at a very high level.”

That sounds like a challenge. And based on how Humphrey reacted to those childhood challenges from his mother about age-group track runners, that should fuel Humphrey for this season and beyond.

Photo Credits: UA Athletics and Kenya Allen/PressBox

Issue 270: August/September 2021

Bo Smolka

See all posts by Bo Smolka. Follow Bo Smolka on Twitter at @bsmolka